REN21, UNEP Reports Highlight Challenges Amid Record Renewable Energy Growth

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The drive to develop and deploy renewable energy worldwide is no ‘blip on the radar screen,’ but rather a sustained, increasingly broad and diverse effort that’s central to international initiatives aimed at making the transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy–driven “green” economies. The cumulative magnitude and effects of growth in renewable energy are laid out in two industry standard reference reports released yesterday: the United Nations Environment Programme’s “Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2012” and the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century’s (REN21) 2012 “Renewables Global Status Report.”

Renewable energy continued to grow strongly across all end-use sectors — power, heating and cooling, and transport — increasing 37% in 2010 and 17% in 2011 to a reach a record $257 billion. That’s a six-fold increase over 2004’s total and 94% higher than that of 2007, a year that saw the onset of the “Great Recession.” Even more impressively, the gains have come despite strong economic, and in some cases, political headwinds, according to UNEP’s report, which is based on data provided by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Developing economies accounted for 35% of 2011’s $257 billion renewable energy investment total, with developed countries accounting for 65%. The US closed the gap on word-leader China as renewable energy increased 57%, to $51 billion. India exhibited the fastest growth among the largest national renewable energy markets, with investment surging 62% to $12 billion.

“There may be multiple reasons driving investments in renewables, from climate, energy security and the urgency to electrify rural and urban areas in the developing world as one pathway towards eradicating poverty-whatever the drivers the strong and sustained growth of the renewable energy sector is a major factor that is assisting many economies towards a transition to a low carbon, resource efficient Green Economy” stated UNEP executive director Achim Steiner.

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Falling Solar, Wind Energy Costs and a Mixed Energy Policy Landscape

In addition to strong gains in both renewable energy investment and installed capacity, falling technology costs were “one of the dominant features of the renewable energy landscape in 2011,” UNEP noted. Solar PV module costs dropped nearly 50%, while the cost of onshore wind turbines fell by around 10%.

Another prominent aspect of the diverse renewable energy sector was the enactment of government policy support for renewable energy in developing countries, evidence of which is clear in the 35% of total global renewable energy investment that was made in developing countries in 2011. More than 118 governments enacted renewable energy policies in 2011, with more than half of them developing countries. The same cannot be said for policy trends in developed nations, however.

Government support for renewable energy in the key US and European Union (EU) markets is fading as banks continue to sag under the weight of bad debts accumulated during the property and real estate boom of the early 2000s and governments under the weight of still-growing emergency bailouts.

Government policy support is a critical element in helping develop sustainable, cost-competitive new renewable energy industries. It seems we’re at the cusp of real change.

Sustainable Energy for All: On the Cusp of Change

Extraordinary progress has been made in the past decade, but a lot remains to be done in order to make a transition from economies driven by fossil fuels to renewable energy alternatives and business practices that account for social and environmental as well as financial costs and returns.

Governments continuing to maintain subsidies and other financial support for fossil fuel consumption and production is one of, if not the, major obstacle to bringing the cost of renewable energy alternatives down further.

It’s estimated that fossil fuel subsidies exceed those for renewable energy five or six to one, if not more. It’s clear, and increasingly imperative, that pressure be brought to bear to counter the extravagantly well-funded political lobbying and campaign funding, as well as the pernicious misinformation and disinformation campaigns, of fossil fuel industry media and public relations machine.

Nonetheless, “the findings in the 2012 GSR (Global Status Report) speak to the accumulating effect of steady growth in renewable energy markets, support policies and investment over the past years,” REN21 states.

Included among the REN21 and UNEP reports’ highlights:

  • The top seven countries for renewable electricity capacity excluding large hydro – China, the United States, Germany, Spain, Italy, India and Japan – accounted for about 70% of total non-hydro renewable capacity worldwide. The ranking among these countries was quite different for non-hydro capacity on a per person basis: Germany, Spain, Italy, the US, Japan, China and India. By region, the EU was home to nearly 37% of global non-hydro renewable capacity at the end of 2011, China, India and Brazil accounted for roughly one quarter.
  • Total investment in solar power jumped 52% to $147 billion and featured booming rooftop photovoltaic (PV) installations in Italy and Germany, the rapid spread of small-scale PV to other countries from China to the UK and big investments in large-scale concentrating solar thermal (CSP) power projects in Spain and the US.
  • Competitive challenges intensified sharply, leading to sharp drops in prices, especially in the solar market — a boon to buyers but not to manufacturers, a number of whom went out of business or were forced to restructure.
  • Renewable power, excluding large hydro-electric, accounted for 44% of all new generating capacity added worldwide in 2011 (up from 34% in 2010). This accounted for 31% of actual new power generated, due to lower capacity factors for solar and wind capacity.
  • Gross investment in fossil-fuel capacity in 2011 was $302 billion, compared to $237 billion for that in renewable energy capacity excluding large hydro.
  • Renewable technologies are expanding into new markets. In 2011, around 50 countries installed wind capacity; solar PV capacity is rapidly moving into new regions and countries; interest in geothermal power has taken hold in East Africa’s Rift Valley and elsewhere; interest in solar heating and cooling is on the rise in countries around the world; and the use of modern biomass for energy purposes is expanding in all regions of the globe.
  • In the power sector, renewables accounted for almost half of the estimated 208 gigawatts (GW) of electric capacity added globally during the year. Wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) accounted for almost 40% and 30% of new renewable capacity, respectively, followed by hydropower (nearly 25%).
  • By the end of 2011, total renewable power capacity worldwide exceeded 1,360 GW, up 8% over 2010; renewables comprised more than 25% of total global power-generating capacity (estimated at 5,360 GW in 2011) and supplied an estimated 20.3% of global electricity.
  • At least 118 countries, more than half of which are developing countries, had renewable energy targets in place by early 2012, up from 96 one year before, although some slackening of policy support was seen in developed countries. This weakening reflected austerity pressures, particularly in Europe, and legislative deadlock in the US Congress.
  • Despite all the additional investments, share prices in the renewable energy sector had a dismal 2011 in the face of overcapacity in the solar and wind manufacturing chains and investor unease about the direction of support policies in both Europe and North America.

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